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U.S. offshore wind is hitting a roadblock. How a startup can clear the way with 3D printing robots

wind turbines against blue and orange sunset with 3D printer
Image Credit: ZHANG FENGSHENG // Unsplash with 3D printer imagery from Oribital Composites

  • It’s an understatement to say wind turbines are mammoth-sized… or rather several times taller than the mammoths were, with blades the length of football fields and up. And they’re only getting bigger as bigger turbines produce more power.

  • However, this size makes them extremely difficult and extravagantly costly to transport to land, sea, and mountaintops, which has stalled a litany of U.S. offshore wind projects, dampening the Administration’s ambitions wind goals.

  • Plus, a waste problem persists in the wind world, as many turbine blades aren’t recyclable.

  • Enter Orbital Composites: a startup based out of California using 3D printing robots to develop recyclable wind turbine blades and other parts directly onsite, cutting transportation from the equation.

Have you ever seen a wind turbine in person? They’re gargantuan.

The average onshore wind turbine stands 446 feet in the air, about 100 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, with stark white blades that are over 170 feet on average. Right now, the largest turbine is General Electric's Haliade-X offshore wind turbine. With an 853 feet stature, it’s just about 100 feet shorter than the Eiffel Tower, and with blades 351 feet long, a football game can just about be played on it.

Wind turbines are getting bigger and bigger because the higher up they are, the more steady the wind, and the more reliable power they produce. In fact, the world’s biggest offshore wind turbine is rising next week in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts off the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. By 2024, the turbine, which, as Bloomberg’s Will Wade puts it, is “as tall as the Washington Monument with the Statue of Liberty stacked on top,” will power 400,000 homes.

However, these big turbines come with a cost: In 2016, the world’s longest wind turbine was made by LM Wind Power and measured to be about 295 feet. As a video made by the company shows, took a massive machine with the strength of 16 African elephants to pull. To put that into perspective, elephants are the strongest mammals and the strongest land animals and can carry about 20,000 pounds, or the weight of 130 average humans… that’s wild.

Now imagine the strength, machinery, and amount of humans it takes to get these parts and turbines to sites such as the seabed off the coast of the Atlantic’s shore, where the Massachusetts turbine will sit; on a Lüliang mountaintop in Hejin, China, that stands between 5,000 to 6,500 feet, as this 20-ton blade turbine does; or simply to rural land nestled between midwestern cornfields where many American wind farms live, when in many cases, elephantine wind turbine blades no longer fit the length of railroad cars.

It’s no wonder that, as Amolak Badesha, CEO of the startup Orbital Composites, told Fast Company, there are, to the surprise of many, zero wind turbine blade factories in the United States. “We used to have more,” he said, “but they’ve all been offshored because of how manual this process is.”

Wind Farm in Guangling County, Shanxi, China -- wind turbines over mountains
Wind Farm in Guangling County, Shanxi, China // Creative Commons image

Getting that turbine blade up one of the Lüliang mountains took three hours. That was in 2019. Just 5 months ago, a 19-ton blade was delivered up a winding mountainside road in Sichuan, China that took the delivery team two weeks as they navigated everything from altitude sickness to heavy storms and snow. And that team has more blades to go as they assemble the hilltop turbine to help meet China’s clean energy ambitions.

That’s why “we want to be able to manufacture the foundation, the tower, and the blades all on-site,” Badesha said via Fast Company. Clearly, as Badesha adds, this “is a radical shift from how it’s done today.”

Right now, most wind turbines are manufactured super labor intensively and use a myriad of machinery to deliver them from dangerously driving trucks up treacherous mountains to using helicopters, to designing specially made trailers the size of turbines that haul them across the country for price tags of $30,000 to 40,000 per turbine for short hauls and upwards of $100,000 for long hauls.

That’s why Campbell, California-based Orbital Composites is eliminating the need to transport parts or the final product altogether by making and assembling turbines onsite using its robotic 3D printing technology.

As the startup puts it on its website, the machine uses “crazy multi-robot coordination.” “Programming that many robots to operate at once must be a nightmare,” the startup states, however with artificial intelligence and machine learning, Orbital’s tech can make robots autonomously print objects in the same build area, or have multiple robots simultaneously print the same object, potentially changing the game for wind farms that can range from 2 to 400 acres per megawatt capacity, which on average translates to 50 turbines.

Already, Orbital uses its tech to print drones and satellite parts, but as the Biden administration aims to develop 30 gigawatts of clean, renewable offshore wind energy by the year 2030, tools like Orbital’s can help accelerate the clean energy revolution and enable the country to meet its goals. As of 2021, the U.S. has 135,886 megawatts (MW) worth of wind turbines installed, which is enough energy to ​​power 39 million American homes per year.

However, offshore wind, which takes place on sea instead of on land, capitalizing on stronger more reliable ocean winds, lags behind. Currently, the U.S. has 40,083 MW now in various stages of development, including two small fully operational projects in Rhode Island and Virginia totaling 42 MW, or just over 4 gigawatts.

Rampion Offshore Wind Farm, United Kingdom // wind turbines on ocean
Rampion Offshore Wind Farm, United Kingdom. Image Credit: Nicholas Doherty // Unsplash

According to a new analysis by the University of California, Berkeley, America’s offshore wind resources are plentiful enough to generate up to a quarter of the nation’s electricity by 2050, reaching our climate goals just in the nick of time.

Nevertheless, the potential is largely untapped, with nearly all of the 10% of energy U.S. wind turbines provide coming from land turbines. This is because as a recent report by Heatmap lays out, high interest rates and rising prices for key commodities like steel are causing projects to fall through, leaving those 40,083 MW projects currently “in development” in purgatory.

As Badesha explained via Fast Company, “When you make structures this large, your cost is actually dominated by materials. The traditional processes are very wasteful.”

However, with Orbital’s onsite 3D printing technology, the costs can be drastically cut the startup says. By only putting in the exact amount of material needed it cuts material costs by 25%, and by manufacturing and assembling onsite, another 10% to 25% is expected to be shaved off the price tag.

If the onsite 3D printing wasn’t cool enough, the startup’s final blades will also be fully recyclable, a feat in the wind world where many turbines are not only not recyclable, but also built in a way that relies on fossil fuels, such as the traditional steelmaking process.

While Orbital is attacking the wind turbine problem first — with plans to test a printed 30-foot blade later this year — its engineers are also working on 3D printing other components of turbines like the magnets that currently rely on rare imported materials. After the 30-foot blade test, the startup will test a 164-foot blade and one of the commercial scale ones as long as a football field.

3D printer imagery
3D printer imagery from Orbital Composites

Orbital’s tech isn’t just in the lab.

Currently, the startup is using a $4 million grant from the Department of Energy to leverage its technology in a collab with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Maine to demonstrate its robotic wind turbine printing tech and light the way to commercialization. Even more, Orbital Composites intends for these turbine blades to be repairable, further pushing the needle for a circular wind turbine industry, when like many other commodities, even clean energy has an end-of-life waste problem.

All of this adds to the startup’s mission to “Create the impossible,” as its homepage reads. And its ambitions of creating the impossible don’t end with wind.

In June the startup inked a collaboration with Michigan-based solar power company Virtus Solis to use Oribital’s innovative manufacturing process for a megawatt-scale commercial space-based solar power station. Capturing solar power from space provides 40 times more energy than a solar panel would generate on Earth annually, an application that truly shoots for the stars when it comes to clean energy ambitions.

“This is only the beginning,” the startup’s website reads. “The quest for developing impossible products won’t stop. We are committed to constant innovation not just to adapt to our transient global economy, but to be leaders of change.”


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